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Handle with Care: Popular Stimulants

Kola nut is used as an aphrodisiac, probably working the same way as chocolate. The nut (Cola nitida) is a seed kernel related to the cacao tree, and is native to the rain forests of West Africa. It is also cultivated in the West Indies and other tropical areas. Containing up to 3 percent caffeine, its stimulant properties were originally derived from chewing on the seeds. Kola nut is now available as tea made of ground seeds. Kola nut was the "cola" part of coke, which, as we mentioned earlier, also originally contained coca extract. Cola drinks now get their kick from synthesized or extracted caffeine plus sugar.

Downsides of Guarana, Maté, and Kola Nut

  • All contain caffeine – with all the attendant risks.
  • Guarana and maté can only be used by those with healthy adrenal status – not the seriously stressed.
Ephedra (Ma Huang): Life in the Fast Lane
Though a traditional remedy with a long history of medical use, ephedra has recently become a controversial herb – within both the natural products industry and government regulatory agencies – because of its misuse. Called ma huang (Ephedra sinica), this ancient Chinese remedy triggers the release of adrenaline, the hormone that mediates the stress response. Since the stress response also causes an initial surge in energy, as well as suppression of appetite, ephedra is often used for both quick energy and weight loss. One study found that it worked better than Redux, a weight loss drug that was later withdrawn from the market because of its toxic effects. A 1996 study found that a combination of 30 mg of ephedra, 100 mg of caffeine, and 300 mg of aspirin promoted fat-burning. Ephedra is also used as a decongestant, most commonly as ephedrine, a more potent and longer-lasting synthetic version of ephedra.

Ephedra is also used by some for recreation. Advertised as "herbal Ecstasy," ephedra actually has little in common with the entheogen Ecstasy, or MDMA. Rather, what's marketed as herbal Ecstasy is generally a combination of ephedra and caffeine – both in high doses – which causes a "rush" that is stimulating and energizing. The high-dose combination can be dangerous, however, producing a rapid heart rate and a rise in blood pressure with accompanying headache, dizziness, and, on rare occasions, even death.

Having the right information will help you choose whether or not to use ephedra. Doses of ephedra should not exceed 8 mg per dose or 24 mg per day. If used at all, ephedra should be taken for short periods of time – days, not weeks or months. Athletes often use ephedra as a stimulant, and while it may increase exercise tolerance, the risk of heart problems is certainly not worth it. We have already seen young athletes, perhaps with undiagnosed preexisting heart problems, have a sudden heart arrhythmia, some fatal, in association with taking ephedra-containing supplements. Nor is it advised for people with diabetes, heart conditions, or those who are energy depleted, recovering from any illness, suffering from a weak constitution, or just hypersensitive to it.

Downside of Ephedra Below are some of the negative side effects associated with ephedra at higher than the recommended doses:

  • Headache, tremor, insomnia, and anxiety.
  • Rapid heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, and a rise in blood pressure.
  • Increased risk of heart attack, seizure, or stroke in susceptible individuals.
  • Reversible toxic psychosis from overstimulation of the brain.
  • A weakened heart, adrenals, and other organs in the long term.
Contraindications Ephedra should not be taken by children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, or people with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, thyroid problems, or psychiatric disorders. Consult with a health-care practitioner prior to use if you have difficulty urinating, prostate enlargement, or glaucoma, or are using any prescription drug. It should not be taken in combination with the so-called "MAOI" antidepressant drugs, or cold medication containing ephedrine pseudoephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine. Discontinue if sleepiness, dizziness, loss of appetite, or nausea occurs.

The natural products industry has taken action to educate the public and to provide quality, safe products. Such organizations include the Ephedra Committee of the American Herbal Products Association and the American Botanical Council. Many countries restrict the use of ephedra. The Canadian health agency recently recalled all ephedra products that make weight-loss or stimulant claims, that are manufactured in combination with stimulants (e.g., caffeine and caffeine-containing herbs), or that exceed the federal dosage levels (i.e., more than 8 mg of ephedrine per dose, 25 mg per day, and recommended for longer than a seven-day period). Ephedra/ephedrine products that are marketed as traditional medicines or are sold as nasal decongestants continue to be available, provided that they comply with the federal dosage levels and do not contain caffeine.

In the U.K., ephedra is available only by prescription by registered herbalists and pharmacists. In the United States, ephedra is currently available without prescription. Due to adverse events reports, the F.D.A. has proposed dosage limits and is considering other restrictions including an outright ban of the herb. In the summer of 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study of the effects of ephedra six months early because the Journal considered the findings sufficiently negative and important.


From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright © Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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